Was the whole art world taken for a ride in the venture that has catapulted the Barnes Foundation from the Main Line to the main corridor of museum row on the Parkway?
Has it all been an artless … art-jacking?
Lenny Feinberg has crafted a masterpiece of a documentary — if only because the masterpieces at the center of "The Art of the Steal" come from the hands and brushes of such stars as Matisse, Van Gogh and Seurat.
The point of the film, opening on Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Ritz 5 in Center City, before adding on screens in the suburbs: Has the world-class foundation in Lower Merion been low-balled by Philadelphia politicians and power players in an attempt to boost their own status, and not out of concern that the $25-billion art collection collect dust in a site unsuitable for its stature?
Executive producer Feinberg may be a novice, new to the film world — this is his first movie — but not to the Barnes: This self-described "real estate investor, mountaineer and wine drinker" toasts the Main Line foundation/invention as a concerned former student at the school founded by Dr. Albert Barnes nearly 90 years ago.
The film focuses on how Barnes — an eccentric collector with an excellent eye who wrote in his will that the art he hung in his museum of a home not be hung out to dry by those wanting to move it from its mainframe mansion in Lower Merion — fought those who would dilute his intentions.
Battle Over the Bounty
Ultimately, his death in a car crash more than 50 years ago served as the impetus for a wrecking ball to his dreams. In a landmark lawsuit oiled in anxious and unctuous moments, Barnes' will — and possibly, his posthumous spirit — was broken, with the collection to be moved to the Parkway under the aegis of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
The abstract arc had ceded to man at his most naturalistic state — patent plunderers, opines the picture: Sunday on the Parkway with gorgeous art may await patrons beginning in 2012, but it is no paean to Barnes' bargain with art aficionados.
Feinberg is one of them, now brushing up against the rich and powerful who, quite possibly, are none too pleased with their onscreen portraits.
"They are very shrewd, sophisticated," says the Bryn Mawr mogul of those painted into a power corner in the film.
Yet Feinberg illustrates the soul of a man standing up for what he believes in, come hell or high watercolor: "You either stand up for something or you don't."
He did. Some of the city's hierarchy will not be pleased either with the way they've been spray-painted as pseudo-art dilettantes in the film. Certainly, the famous Walter Annenberg Foundation won't be, as the film clearly illuminates how the late, one-time powerful publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News used his freedom of the press freely as a noose to bag Barnes — his papers pressed against the doctor's neck, in retribution for cutting comments Barnes had once made against Moe Annenberg, Walter's famous and infamous father. It is far from a pretty picture.
"Did Annenberg's revenge attempts surprise me? Yes and no," says Feinberg. "Barnes himself was a bellicose personality; he wouldn't walk away from a fight."
While Annenberg would fire up the presses, burning Barnes, "Barnes would throw gas on" the high-octane conflagration, making it flame anew.
But why? It all seemed so simple. Barnes wrote a will, very clear and concise of his intent that his collection not be carted away from the suburban site. When did a will become a … won't?
Argues Feinberg of one of the anti-Barnes crowd's contentions: "The Barnes, since the '50s, has been open to the public, and the whole issue of public access is a canard."
No ducking the powerbrokers: Feinberg's film, directed by Don Argott, clangs steel — amid accusations of "Steal" — with such behemoths as the Pew Foundation; former buried-in-controversy Barnes president and lawyer Richard Glanton; and an assortment of movers and shakers shaking up the status quo. In this array of Barnes builders and bashers is a less than palette-pleasing portrayal of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
"But I understand his role," says Feinberg simply. "He's a politician."
The mean streets of Philly — and the mien of politicians and art connoisseurs — have never looked so snarky than in this film. But it not a one-way street traveled by Feinberg; he sees the other side, albeit with a cynical appreciation of the property values espoused by the Barnes builders.
Razing Barnes raises other topics for the filmmaker. "The Art of the Steal" is just the beginning of Feinberg's canvassing the city for distinct depictions. From the row over Barnes to Boathouse Row … "There are a lot of untold stories in Philadelphia," says the producer, "and I intend to tell them.